§ Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)
(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Wales if he will make a statement on the recent severe flooding in Wales—[Interruption.]
§ Madam Speaker
Order. Will hon. Members leaving the Chamber please do so quietly so that we may make progress on the private notice question?
§ The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hunt)
In Wales we have experienced severe flooding caused by exceptionally heavy rain since Sunday, following above-average rainfall during the previous four months. Between Sunday afternoon, 29 November, and Wednesday afternoon, 2 December, 244 mm—9.61 in—of rain fell at Treherbert in the Rhondda. That is almost 10 in three days. During the past few days, river levels have been high over a wide area with no fewer than 20 rivers being placed on red alert. I am pleased to be able to inform the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) that the recent flooding has largely abated and we hope that weather conditions will continue to improve. This afternoon, the only river on which a red alert remains in force is the River Wye.
There have been numerous cases of local flooding, although few problems of flooding from major rivers, and the flood defences have performed reasonably well. The problems, in many cases, appear to have been caused by culverts on small side streams becoming blocked. There has also been widespread flooding of flood plains.
One of the worst affected areas has been Pontypridd, where nearly 100 business and private properties have been flooded. Many properties have also been flooded in Treorchy, Tredegar and other parts of Wales. During the early hours of yesterday morning, a slip of material occurred from the face of a coal tip and covered part of a school playground at Tredegar. The cause of the slip is said to have been a blocked culvert, uphill from the tip, which caused water to flow on to and through the tip. Fortunately, there were no injuries or structural damage, but the school was closed and 900 pupils were sent home. The clean-up is continuing and the school will remain closed until next week. The tip is now being carefully monitored. I am sure that the House will wish to join me in expressing sympathy with those who have been in any way affected by those recent events.
Since the last major flood in 1979, some £34 million has been spent on flood defences in south Wales. As a result, many communities have been spared flooding on this occasion.
I am sure that all hon. Members would wish to join me in expressing appreciation for the dedicated work of the National Rivers Authority flood defence staff, the police, local authorities and all the other emergency services and voluntary organisations involved.
§ Mr. Davies
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I wish to associate myself wholeheartedly with the tribute that he has paid to the emergency services, particularly to the local authorities and, of course, the National Rivers Authority. South Wales has been badly hit over recent days and all the emergency services have performed their duties magnificently.
396 There is no doubt that millions of pounds' worth of damage has been done in Wales. Transport has been disrupted; there have been landslides; hundreds, if not thousands, of homes have been flooded; and livestock and farmland have been lost. I understand that, in the opinion of the emergency services in the three south Wales counties of Gwent, Mid Glamorgan and West Glamorgan, most damage was caused by the inability of the outdated water and sewerage infrastructure to cope with higher than normal rainfall. Will the Secretary of State therefore undertake to review the effectiveness of the flood control measures in affected areas and make the necessary capital available to remedy any shortcomings identified by that survey?
Given the tight financial settlement for local authorities this year, does the Secretary of State intend to fund emergency expenditure? In particular, will he guarantee that any overspending in the current year will not result in penalties?
Many of the flood victims will have been under-insured. Does the Secretary of State have in mind any proposals for a compensation scheme? If the Government can find £60 million for the uninsured Windsor castle, can we have equal treatment for the people of Wales?
§ Mr. Hunt
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the words of praise which he gave to the emergency services. As I pointed out in my initial response, a substantial sum has been spent in Wales since the last major flood in 1979, including £10 million by the Welsh Office. Of course, there have been contributions from other sources as well. I will carefully review all the schemes in the light of the experience of this flood; I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance.
The current flood defences performed well, and in many parts of Wales prevented significant flooding.
I should like to say a special word about Pontrypridd, where there is a need for flood schemes. The flooding was predominantly from complex drainage systems within the town of Pontypridd. Works are going on in Zion street and Hopkinstown. I hope that proposals will be coming forward which we can look at and take action upon.
As to further help, the hon. Gentleman will know that Ministers have power to activate schemes of special financial assistance to local authorities under the Bellwin scheme where storms or flooding cause serious financial problems. I am not aware of any circumstances that would give rise to the use of those powers in this case, but I shall monitor the position carefully.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, it is the responsibility of individual householders to ensure that they have adequate insurance. I will be visiting many of the affected areas tomorrow and I will bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman has said.
§ Mr. Roger Evans (Monmouth)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the River Wye, which he told us was still under a state of red alert, is still rising at Hereford, upstream, which normally means that Monmouth town will be affected within 24 hours? Is he aware that the flood alleviation scheme which was carried out in Monmouth town some years ago is widely believed by one school of thought to be ineffective due to the porosity of the ground undermining the effectiveness of the embankments? Will he give us an assurance that the position in Monmouth town will be monitored carefully?
§ Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)
May I join the right hon. Gentleman in his praise for the statutory services, which did a marvellous job? Does he accept, however, that many private householders in Wales are not only under-insured but uninsured, because they simply cannot afford the premiums currently required, particularly if they are unemployed? Will he give an undertaking that he will be prepared to look outside the Bellwin scheme if there are large numbers of private householders who have modest but, to them, important claims which will need to be met in order to put their homes back into a habitable condition? Or are we to take it that they will simply be told that it is bad luck that they were not insured?
§ Mr. Hunt
Not at all. I thank the hon. and learned Member for his remarks about the emergency services. I am aware of several hundred properties involved, but not the thousands that might have been suspected originally. I will be visiting several of the most severely affected areas tomorrow and I will bear in mind what he says, but I see no reason at present to go outside the Bellwin formula.
§ Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford)
Does my right hon. Friend recall that the River Wye hydrological basin extends across the border from the Principality into Herefordshire and that the county of Herefordshire has been very adversely affected by the flooding to which he has referred? I reinforce the compliments paid to the emergency services, which, in Herefordshire, have performed with great effectiveness. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what conversations he has had with the National Rivers Authority in respect of a review of the effectiveness of the flood defence arrangements in the lower Wye valley?
§ Mr. Hunt
I recognise that there are a number of problems in England, particularly in areas adjoining Wales, which have been caused by this enormously severe rainfall; for nearly 10 in to fall in just three days presents a very serious situation. By and large, however, the emergency services have coped magnificently.
I shall seek a meeting with the NRA to have a look at all the lessons that need to be learned from this experience, which I very much hope is now over; we can look back and see what lessons are to he learned. I shall bear in mind what my hon. Friend has said.
§ Mr. Peter Hain (Neath)
Frankly, the Secretary of State has offered us only a flood of crocodile tears. Is he not aware that the people of Neath have suffered a downpour nightmare, that the A465 was under 5 ft of water in some places and yet the Welsh Office has still not offered to reconstruct it, that Pontardawe town centre was flooded, that valley villages were cut off and that many parts of Neath were flooded? Why has he not promised us proper funding under the Bellwin scheme? Why will he not allow the Department of Social Security to restore the entitlement to benefits and payments for household and buildings insurance which were withdrawn, because many people in Neath are on low incomes or on benefits? Why 398 has he not implemented the recommendations of the Welsh Consumer Council after the Towyn tragedy over two and a half years ago? He is being utterly complacent.
§ Mr. Hunt
Once again the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) has gone over the top. I do not know what consultations he has undertaken with his local authority, but it is aware, as he is, of the Bellwin formula. I am not aware that I have received any notification at all from Neath borough council or from West Glamorgan county council that they anticipate the need to activate the Bellwin formula in this case. Perhaps if the hon. Gentleman were to keep in close consultation with his own local authority, he might keep me informed.
§ Mr. Hunt
I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman is communicating to me the fact that they are asking for the Bellwin formula to be activated. They are aware how it operates; they should get in touch with me if they believe that the moment has arrived.
I recognise the serious nature of the problems and I pay tribute, as I did earlier, to the people in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and elsewhere in Wales who have had to put up with difficult conditions. I shall monitor the situation carefully, but, as I said before, I am not aware of any need to do anything other than follow the normal practices which have been laid down for many years.
Of course I am aware of the situation in Towyn. I visited the area and have done so on many occasions. I have done my best to ensure that we implement many of the recommendations that have been made not only by the Welsh Consumer Council but by the many other bodies, including the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, which looked into the circumstances of that tragedy.
§ Mr. Jonathan Evans (Brecon and Radnor)
My right hon. Friend will be aware of the widespread concern in the Principality about the incident to which he has already referred at the school in Tredegar, my home town. That brought back to some of us those terrible images from our childhood of the Aberfan disaster. In light of the further slip of coal refuse, albeit, happily, on this occasion with no injury to life, will my right hon. Friend ensure that there is an urgent review off all coal tips that are in any sort of proximity to school or other private premises, in order that nothing like that happens again.
§ Mr. Hunt
My hon. Friend raises an important point, but the House may recall that, following that tragedy, it passed the Mines and Quarries (Tips) Act 1969, under part II of which disused colliery spoil tips are inspected regularly by county councils, which are responsible for their safety. But my hon. Friend is right. Before I came into the Chamber I was assured that all tips are inspected regularly, especially those where there are suspected—[Interruption.]
§ Madam Speaker
Order. Interruptions are most disconcerting for the entire House and particularly for the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box. Let us have a little more order now. [Interruption.] Order. Mr. Secretary Hunt.
§ Mr. Hunt
As I was saying, all tips are inspected regularly, especially those where heavy rain may cause 399 problems. I have asked my officials once again to liaise with the other authorities to ensure that all tips are inspected, particularly in view of what has happened recently. I shall bear heavily the responsibility that my hon. Friend has put on me and which I readily assume.
§ Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)
I draw the Secretary of State's attention to the fact that landslides are not only a function of coal tips; some of the slides have been coming from the mountainside itself, reviving genuine fears and concerns in more than one valley community. May we have a task force, established by the Welsh Office and county and district authorities, to investigate the stability of our hillsides, not just the coal tips, many of which have been removed?
§ Mr. Hunt
In view of the hon. Gentleman's experience in these matters, I respect his advice. I shall put in train the inquiries that he has requested. We are aware of all the circumstances of landslides and I shall ensure that they are all inspected. I shall take advice on how best to meet the hon. Gentleman's other points.
§ Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower)
One of the lessons of Towyn was the importance attached to the speed with which insurance companies responded to claims. Will the right hon. Gentleman meet the Association of British Insurers as soon as possible to encourage it to respond to claims quickly so that the damage that has been incurred can be put right as soon as possible?
§ Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)
As someone whose own home was affected by the floods, I too pay tribute to the emergency services in the Rhondda area, which is always badly affected by any rains. As the Secretary of State says, we are constantly learning lessons, but when will they be acted upon? The Secretary of State mentioned the 10 in of rain in Treherbert, which led to a disaster all the way down the valley. We have an outdated trunk and rainwater system which badly needs investment. The lessons are there to be learnt from the floods of just a few years ago.
There are disasters waiting to happen in south Wales. A recent survey identified hundreds of potential land slips in the valleys of south Wales. If they do not happen in Blaencwm or Blaenrhondda, they will happen elsewhere. Only last week, the survey said that every coal tip in south Wales was safe, but this Monday one flowed. A disaster will occur and there will be a substantial loss of life unless the Secretary of State gets to grips with the problem.
§ Mr. Hunt
I treat seriously the hon. Gentleman's comments, but in Wales we have the legacy of the old mine workings, which imposes on us a special responsibility. The Welsh Development Agency is pursuing the largest land clearance programme anywhere in Europe, and the Welsh Office must work together with all agencies to ensure that that work is as effective as possible. I recognise that we must be vigilant and ensure that the necessary mechanisms are in place to deal with the kind of situation that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
§ Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)
Will the Secretary of State provide additional help for the National Rivers Authority's flood prevention work? It did some good work in Carmarthen after the 1987 floods, but several villages, 400 such as Abergwili and Whitland, quickly fall victim to flooding. Whitland has flooded for the third time in six years.
§ Mr. Hunt
I have been watching the situation in and around the hon. Gentleman's constituency with concern. The improved flood defences were adequate, and further works will go ahead as soon as the route for the new eastern bypass is agreed. We are watching the situation carefully, and have reserve emergency plans if it worsens. We hope that the worst is now past. I again pay tribute to the police, who have done a great deal to comfort people through the advertised helpline—the number of which, I repeat, is 0656 766066. That helpline is still open, and if people are concerned about anything they should contact the police.
§ Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)
Is the Secretary of State aware of the amount of flooding in Pontypridd? Although it is not my constituency, one third of the borough of Taff Ely is in my constituency of Ogmore. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) cannot be present because he is in Pontypridd trying to solve the problems created by the flooding of the whole town and of 30 commercial properties. The right hon. Gentleman referred to the flooding in 1979. Hon. Members well remember the difficulties and problems that our constituents suffered on that occasion—and some of them have still not yet received compensation. Some of us have been experiencing flooding since we were young schoolboys in Treorchy, and no Government—including the present Government—have made any attempt to protect people against it. Since 1979 there has been privatisation, and it is disgusting that the salary of the chairman of the Welsh water authority has trebled and that people are picking up money from investing in Welsh Water when money should be spent on flood prevention in Wales.
§ Mr. Hunt
I will confine my reply to the situation in Pontypridd, which I hope to visit tomorrow to see the conditions there for myself. The local Member for Parliament has been in touch with me and my office to ensure that we are aware of the seriousness of the problem. There are complex drainage systems in the town of Pontypridd and I want to investigate how much that contributed to the problem. I understand that propoals to protect the town's commercial area are under review by the relevant authorities. I am impatient for that review to be brought to a speedy conclusion, so that action can be taken.
§ Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)
The Secretary of State said that he believes that the NRA is doing a good job. Is it not self-evident from what he said today that two blocked culverts gave rise to large-scale flooding of the Tredegar slip and in Pontypridd? Is not it self-evident that the NRA is not doing its job properly, and will the Secretary of State undertake to take that up with the authority immediately to ensure that such a disaster does not happen again?
§ Mr. Hunt
I do not think that I can promise that culverts will never be blocked; nor do I draw the same conclusion as the hon. Gentleman. I stressed that the National Rivers Authority performed its duties very effectively by issuing flood warnings promptly and 401 correctly. I shall, of course, examine the points that he has made, because there will be lessons to learn from what has happened.
§ Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell), said, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontrypridd (Dr. Howells) cannot be here, but may I say on his behalf that as a schoolboy I travelled through Pontypridd for more than 10 years? On at least half a dozen occasions, I was unable to make the journey because of flooding. A proper flood prevention scheme is clearly long overdue. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will seek an early meeting with my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd to discuss a flood prevention scheme for the town.